Tag Archives: #suicide

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination. For the most part of his literary opus, post-modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has been trying to imagine social settings which represent life consistent with alternative and unconventional rules. One such example is offered in his novel “The Norm”, where the Soviet style populism, packed as the vulgar materialistic interpretation of “pseudo-egalitarian” dystopia has settled in and been allowed to blossom to its final consequences. The book was written in the 1980s, when the system’s imminent end was not palpable, and the writer described its long-term trajectory, the very journey of the Soviet “deep space mission”.

“The Norm” is the name for a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. The book is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. [1]

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

It remains one of the great ironies of the post-1968 West that massive waves of liberation on all fronts ultimately only paved the way for hegemony. This resulted in a drastic reshaping of the possible modes of contestation of different forms of power. How does one rebel against the all-permissive system that shows absolute hegemonic dominance where saying no is meaningless and inconsequential and where resistance is futile? Oppression can be overturned by revolution, but hegemony cannot – it has to be toppled from within. For a rapidly growing majority of those pushed outside of the (shrinking) enclosure of prosperity whose future is collapsing under the crunch of status quo, there is no hope for change. For them, life on this “planet” is no longer possible. The only mode of resistance is rebellion against the established rules.

The world has already seen this type resistance on the global geopolitical scene as a total collective refusal to play by the rules of the neo-liberal world order. The regimes which have refused to follow the established conventions are not new, from Castro and Khomeini, to Iraq, North Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. The novelty brought in by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West is that it comes from the part of the world that has been the staunchest defender of those rules and is now championing their dismantling.

The war on rules is a decision to exorcise oneself from the existing order of things – it is a declaration of war on oneself, a suicide mission of sorts. It is an exile to another “planet”. Any political or religious leader willing to undertake this mission on behalf of the excluded, is likely to forge a special pact between himself and his constituents. The implicit sacrificial obligation of this commitment, by its very nature, makes that person immune to any defection, or ideological or material corruption, and secures an unconditional, cult-like devotion and support from his following. Even if facts and reality point to his flaws, corruptibility or dishonesty, his commitment alone will ensure a practically unlimited political credit line.

Populism, like space travel, is sustained by the hope that life on another planet is possible. Populist leaders and their followers are faced with the same dilemmas as space travelers. They all carry the willingness to leave the world as we know it and embark on a potentially fatal journey, even if the probability of success is infinitesimal. And that willingness is the most radical act of rule breaking and an absolute weapon against the system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death.

As long as the leaders stick to their promises, people will cut them slack. Populism’s main agenda is continuous breaking of the rules. The more politically damning their actions, the stronger their commitment appears. The more blatant disrespect for the established conventions and rules they show, no matter how futile and meaningless those empty gestures might be, the firmer the bond between populist leaders and their followers. What is normally perceived as a political suicide becomes the main engine of popularity.

Shit as a universal reference frame

The integrity of our lives, as we know them, is sustained by an extraordinarily fine-tuned set of rules and parameters. Disturbing the rules even slightly leads to qualitative changes. If our body’s temperature changes by one degree, we get sick, if it rises by more than four degrees, we are very likely to die. Inventing new rules means inventing new forms of life[2].

This link between rules and life is the aspect populist leaders, predominantly the right-wing kind, and their followers show no capacity for understanding – their most distinguishing trademark is a deafening cognitive dissonance. But what kind of life can we expect on the populist planet? On Mars, for example, the gravitational constant is three times lower than on Earth and water there boils at 10 degrees Celsius, so no coffee, and no hardboiled eggs for starters. Everyone is at least eight feet tall, their bone density different, blood flow probably seriously compromised, and who knows how that affects the brain.

Embracing new rules, like embarking on a deep space mission, requires a voluntary participation ritual. Sorokin’s book, The Norm, describes precisely such ritualized participation. However, as outlandish as it sounds, the book’s extrapolation is not far-removed from our reality. Rules that govern our lives also regulate the flow of shit, its path and direction, how it disappears and how it resurfaces in different forms[3]. We use shit to fertilize soil and grow plants; animals eat those plants and we eat both animals and plants. However, there is a clear protocol in these circular flows. They are important. Changing the rules even slightly profoundly affects our lives.

Like space travel[4], populism approaches shit rationally by throwing it (with everything else) into the big optimizer. The difference between Sorokin’s dystopia and our world is condensed in minor changes in the rules of shit-flow, by cutting the “middleman”. Such approach is hardly a surprise, given the decades of reign of the ideology where the requirement of economic optimization is elevated to a general political principle whereby the system of economic production is also a system of anthropological production[5] — an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. The recycling bin of this ideology is the actual birth place of the right-wing populism — a political maneuver championed by the mid-level segment of the oligarchic structure, posing as self-proclaimed defenders of the excluded and purveyors of ideological snake oil for the poor. Their platform is founded on the long ago rejected “free-market” dogmas, which nobody (including them) takes seriously anymore, alive only thanks to the life support provided by the new identity politics.

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess, The Nation (4-Feb-2016)

[2] Heterotopias are reminders of this link, as Michel Foucault outlined in his 1967 essay, Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies. They represent real sites that can be found within the culture where social rules and interactions are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted, e.g. boarding schools, in their nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men; heterotopias of deviation like rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons; brothels, puritan societies established by the English settlers in America, or Jesuit colonies founded in South America in which “human perfection” was effectively achieved. Life in these communities is significantly different from that on the outside, but the underlying rules governing them are only slight variations of ours.

[3] This is a deep ideological terrain – different cultures are distinguished by the way they dispose of their shit (the comparative architecture of German and French toilettes is probably the most eloquent summary of the differences between the two cultures).

[4] When it comes to manned deep space missions, bringing food supplies from Earth would take up valuable space aboard the spacecraft as well as increase fuel consumption, which is why scientists are searching for a more economical solution by growing or generating food en route. Astronauts on their way to Mars may be required to eat their own waste in the form of a recycled paste. The innovation is being touted as a possible nutritional solution for long-term manned space missions.

[5] P. Dardot and C. Laval, La nouvelle raison du monde, La Découverte (2010)

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

There is a species of man who is always one step ahead of his own excrement (René Char)

Scandal is emerging as possibly the most significant technological innovation of the new century so far. It makes social barriers porous, it uncovers human flaws behind the sheltered Public, humanizes the dehumanized, and contaminates the sterilized Symbolic. Current political reality reveals itself through scandal. Scandal gives an illusion of political engagement – it is political activism in consumer mode.

Perfection is sterile – we are attracted to people’s weaknesses and imperfections and not to their strengths. If personal flaws and idiosyncrasies harmonize with repressed collective traumas, desires and nostalgia for the ancestral terrain, they can have a great mobilizing power capable of defining new identity politics and shaping entire political movements. A leader who is able to strike the ancestral chord of his people will make those people dance to his grooves and fall in love with him. For several decades now, the new breed of post-Reagan politicians has been doubling down on their flaws in a bid for deeper access to wider political audiences and a chance to reinvest considerable rage capital that has accumulated over time. Their idiosyncrasies make them human, and the more they err, the more human and appealing they become. They diffuse one scandal with another (always) bigger one — spectacle is addictive, it has to grow to satiate the boundless appetite of the publics. Since Reagan days, scandal has morphed from a free form to a precise game theoretical strategy.

The main problem with scandal as a public communication tool is its integration into political life. After all, scandal in public life has always been synonymous with professional suicide, the end of political career (Nixon was the last tragic victim of that equation). It took almost two decades after Reagan to figure out how to bypass this obstacle. The breakthrough came with a realization that the troubling equation, Scandal = Suicide, is intimately linked with the second one, Suicide = Power.

It wasn’t very long after 9/11 that the West managed to grasp the idea that suicide is a statement of power. A man on a suicide mission is not to be messed with: Irrespective of how much stronger you are, he will manage to hurt you, or at best, his guts will splatter all over you leaving the stains (physical and mental) you will never be able to remove. The impactfullness of suicide as the ultimate symbolic gesture can only be understood and argued after reconciling it with the symbolism of afterlife. The duality of suicide — physical and symbolic (the collateral and the reward) – defines the first layer of its rationalization within the existing cultural paradigm.

Suicide is the most private act. Its intent and execution are done without the consent of anyone but the self. The suicide through martyrdom is an externalization of that personal pact; it is a radical privatization of the public space – a violent erasure of the gap between private and public.

Physical suicide as subordination to a higher goal that transcends the value of human life represents a symbolic act that has no counterpart in the Western culture. For Westerners, this is potentially the most frightening confrontation. But, the West has emancipated itself from this nonsense of higher goals a long time ago: We no longer give our lives for higher goals; we take risks in exchange for adequate compensation.

With real (fundamentalist) martyrs loss of life is real and afterlife is symbolic. For pragmatic Westerners rationalization of suicide consists in transposing its coordinates: suicide becomes symbolic and afterlife real. This is the key step.

Over the last two decades, the public spectacle of symbolic suicide has become a ticket to a lucrative material “afterlife” for numerous public figures. Through scandal, current populist politics, (the concluding chapter of neoliberalism) has been transformed into a perpetual ritual of watered down acts of reversible self-annihilation — political suicide followed by subsequent symbolic resurrection. The ongoing parody of self-destruction comes with an embedded option on resurrection (political and/or commercial) or an implicit promise of a lucrative “afterlife” with “70 virgins” in the form of book deals, high-commission speech opportunities, TV appearances, Fox News correspondent, or consultant positions.

These rituals are repeated over and over again as an essential part of an ever-growing public spectacle. The high-stakes game, the ultimate gamble, where one puts his life on the line for his beliefs (what if my belief is wrong and my life was lost for nothing?) is transposed into its parody, a tactical low-stakes gambit consisting of making minor short-term concessions in return for a potentially large future upside. There is an emancipatory ring to this parody: While “traditional” martyrdom has been strictly a male thing, symbolic suicide has been very much a gender-neutral thing, which has only helped its acceptance and integration.

As potential upside grew, the spectacle of symbolic self-annihilation became more competitive and more elaborate. At the top of this theatre of cruelty sits Donald Trump, always (and without a single exception) on the wrong side of every argument, political, social, ethical, ecological or rational, with consistency that can only be deliberate or programmatic, definitely not accidental. And this is just an appetizer; his distaste for truth, deep in the territory of pathological, is an amuse-bouche (it comes free of charge) before the main course, his passion for scandal of any kind, political, sexual, financial, or legal, none too small or too trivial not to be embraced, defines his habitat. He insults war heroes, war heroes’ widows and parents, handicapped, women, homosexuals, transgender, minorities, judges, FBI, CIA, media, religions, domestic and foreign dignitaries, chiefs of states, anyone that exists on this planet and beyond. And when it looks like he has sunk as low as one can sink, he manages to define new lows. His ability to survive the consequences defies laws of probability, gravity and logic; it can be only compared to surviving a plane crash (something his buddy Nigel Farage actually experienced).

Trump’s administration appointees and surrogates are all symbolic martyrs, selected volunteers on a suicide mission, trying to keep up with their boss. This commitment has become all but an explicit prerequisite for any political office appointment — we continue to be reminded of Comey’s (or Tillerson’s) ritualized dismissal as a consequence of their reluctance to commit to the parody of martyrdom.

The list of Trump’s symbolic suicide volunteers has been growing at an exploding rate. Various transient surrogates and talking heads are too insignificant and numerous to mention. But, who can forget the tragicomic figure of Sean Spicer, a bona fide moron, who went too far too soon and, in that process, blew his chances for afterlife; or premature ejaculator Scaramucci who kamikazeed on runway before his “plane” could take off; the undead duo, Conway & HakaSan; Jeffrey Lord who just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and (for no good reason and out of the blue) blasted a Sieg Heil on twitter, and subsequently lost his CNN (and any other) gig; Garry Cohn, a rational man who did and said irrational things and ruined his reputation in a futile mission, but as a government employee, managed to cash in his vested Goldman Sachs stocks without paying capital gains tax; the list goes on and on.

But, when it comes to the spectacle of public self-annihilation, no one comes close to Sean Hannity, the whirling dervish, performance artist, and Swiss army knife of populist tricks. People of all persuasions and political leanings tune in every night to watch the greatest show on TV, where this postmodern-day Lazarus of the far right sets himself on fire and incinerates his symbolic body every business day of the week at precisely 9 p.m. and within the subsequent 60 minutes violates every professional, journalistic, legal, ethical, and esthetical boundary there is to violate, only to magically resurrect the next day and repeat the same ritual during the exact same time slot.

However, away from the spectacle, one faces sobering reality: Porous boundaries, atonal politics, and populist plan for its rescue reveal the troubling truth about the human condition of the depressive-narcissistic neoliberal subject. It is at the edge of depression where neoliberalism meets its fundamentalist twin. The inability to arrive at a decision or finish anything constitutes a symptom of depression[1]  — our spirit has become so compromised that even suicide cannot be accepted as a conclusive act, but just another chapter – what can be more narcissistic than that? This is the social Möbius strip where the real becomes symbolic and the symbolic turns into real. In this process of social pornografication, the paradigm of the reality show converts martyrdom into a precisely structured symbolic ritual, mythology of afterlife into business opportunities, and transforms America, and the West in general, into a culture of second acts. Everything is explicit and nothing is believable.

[1] B. C. Han